After 12 days of testimony in the regulatory hearing that will help decide the fate of NextEra Energy’s $4.3 billion bid to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries, and with a lengthy recess ahead, this is a good moment to step back and reflect on the remarkably low price of oil.

Why oil? Petroleum prices have come up in passing several times at the hearing, which is expected to resume on Feb. 1; but Hawaii’s intensive use of oil to generate electricity means that volatile pricing is casting a little-explored shadow over NextEra’s big-money acquisition.

Early in the hearing, Public Utilities Commissioner Michael Champley asked Eric Gleason, NextEra Energy Hawaii’s president, how realistic it is to expect electricity rates to come down if the acquisition goes through. Gleason, who had already cited an array of cost-saving measures, replied that as long as Hawaii continues to burn oil to generate most of its electricity, petroleum prices will continue being the greatest single determinant of electricity rates.

“In the long term, it is about getting off oil,” Gleason testified.

In recent years, oil prices have accounted for 50 percent to 70 percent of our electric bills; and oil is used to generate close to 70 percent of the state’s electricity.

The state’s reliance on oil poses a unique challenge for NextEra, whose main argument is essentially that it will run the utility more efficiently and effectively to reduce costs for customers.

Recent cheaper oil prices have driven electricity costs down so much that the Florida-based company may discover that any savings it can produce, should the merger go through, would be washed away if oil prices go back up, according to Marco Mangelsdorf.

Mangelsdorf, a seasoned solar expert, recently became the director and spokesperson of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative, a structure created in the hopes of one day purchasing and running the utility on the Big Island.

Prices have tumbled since NextEra formally signaled its interest in Hawaiian Electric Industries in June 2014, when spot oil prices were well over $100 a barrel. In the months before the December 2014 announcement of the proposed deal between the two companies, the price of oil fell to around $60 per barrel.

Barely a year later, oil prices have dropped below $35 per barrel — a price not seen since June 2002. The price of the low-sulfur diesel-fuel blend Hawaii uses to generate electricity is a bit higher than that of crude oil on international markets.

From the perspective of NextEra, a company promising palpably lower energy costs, “the timing of lower and lower oil prices … could not have been worse,” Mangelsdorf said.

Energy consumption by source in Hawaii — petroleum oil coal natural gas renewable

In such a context, he pointed out that higher oil costs would actually “make for a more appealing pitch” from the company.

Civil Beat spoke with several other experts in energy and finance who agreed that unexpectedly low oil prices create added hurdles for a company going though this high-stakes regulatory process.

NextEra, of course, was hardly alone in failing to foresee the large and enduring drop in oil prices since the middle of 2014; few — if any — experts did.

But when NextEra was running the numbers to calculate how much it might save customers in Hawaii — it ultimately promised to save them $60 million a year — and how much it would earn for itself, it was dealing with much, much higher oil prices and a lesser likelihood that prices might rise after the purchase.

The decision of NextEra’s brain trust “to take the deep dive into the regulatory, political and cultural stew bowl of our Aloha State might have been quite different if oil was below $40 per barrel at the time of the numbers-crunching,” noted Mangelsdorf.

Cheaper Oil In Our Lives

When oil prices rise — as they often have in recent years — they invariably drive up the price of electricity in the islands. At such times, customers in Hawaii don’t just feel the price-pain from oil at the pump; they also feel it strongly when they turn on appliances at home.

And when oil prices fall dramatically, like they have over the last 18 months, people don’t just feel relief when they fill their vehicles with gasoline, which is now available for $2.59 per gallon on Oahu. They are also likely to feel less price pressure when they power their home.

The typical monthly residential electric bill, which Hawaiian Electric Co. President and CEO Alan Oshima noted was well over $200 for a sustained period of 2014, has dipped below $140 in recent months.

Nobody is saying people in Hawaii enjoy affordable electricity — just that it is a lot less expensive than it was 18 months ago, when NextEra was negotiating its offer and calculating the potential savings.

NextEra’s top representatives in the islands declined to comment for this article.

Electricity rates in the islands remain two to three times the national average, but the diminishing economic pressures from oil-driven electricity prices make it easier to spend time contemplating things that go beyond cost when looking at energy.

And that brings us back to the regulatory hearings. An array of issues — environmental concerns, the shift toward renewable energy, employment, respecting local culture, and treating former employees right — were always likely to come up at a hearing like this one in Hawaii.

The same goes for the intensive questioning of the merger applicants about NextEra’s intentions, about the solidity of its 85 pledges to the commission, about whether its past behavior in other places will define its actions here, and whether the company is a suitable fit for Hawaii.

While there has been a significant focus on lessening the financial burden, if typical residential bills were still nearly $100 more each month than they are now, the emphasis likely would be different.

“What if we gave them the company when there were really high oil prices?” asked, rhetorically, Henry Curtis of Life of the Land, an environmental nonprofit that is intervening in the case.

If that happened, NextEra might be overseeing Hawaiian Electric now when prices are dropping, albeit due to factors that have little or nothing to do with the utility.

Nextera Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason spent three days on the stand at the hearing that will decide whether his company's purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries goes through.
NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason spent three days on the stand at the hearing that will decide whether his company’s purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries goes through. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The flip side, of course, — and this has been mentioned by Gleason and Hawaiian Electric Co. CEO and Chairman Alan Oshima — is that oil prices are likely to rise again at some point.

If that happens in the next half-decade or so — and numerous experts suggest that it will take at least that long for Hawaii to break its reliance on oil — even a return back to moderate oil prices could wash away the benefits of a wide array of cost-saving measures.

Until Hawaii shifts away from oil, the state will continue to live with uncertainty. Some forecasts predict oil prices will rise again in 2016; others suggest that we could see the price of a barrel of crude oil fall to around $25 in 2016. Its finger to the winds, the oil giant Shell is laying off thousands of employees.

So it is perhaps not surprising that NextEra is only offering a “conditional guarantee” that it will lower base-rate costs by a total of $60 million in the four years after a merger.

Those savings are, company representatives have noted, in contrast to what customers would otherwise pay to Hawaiian Electric. But rising oil prices could easily make the savings disappear.

Read our ongoing report on Hawaii’s high cost of living and the search for what can be done about it.

And you can continue the broader conversation and discuss practical and political solutions by joining Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii.

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